Congressional Country Club, host of the AT&T National, is in an area west of Washington, D.C. rich with million-dollar homes and ritzy golf courses. Just a chip shot from Congressional are Avenel, Bethesda, Burning Tree, Chevy Chase, Columbia, and Kenwood. Just one problem: Unless you have connections, you can’t play any of these ultra-private clubs.
The good news is that there is an abundance of public options in the Washington area ranging from immaculate daily-fee courses to less-expensive, generally-older municipal facilities.
The public course closest to Congressional is Montgomery County muni Falls Road, which was spruced up in 2009, and can give your ego a boost. The par 70 measures 6,162 yards from the tips. For a more formidable challenge, Northwest (7,376 yards) in Silver Spring, is the toughest of Montgomery County’s nine government courses. It has wide fairways, huge greens, and plenty of 1960s-era parkland touches.
Hampshire Greens, also in Silver Spring, the newest and best-maintained county course, has interesting design features by Lisa Maki, but plays through a bustling housing development and rates reach $70 on the weekend. If looking for a more peace and lower greens fees, try rugged Little Bennett in Clarksburg, which has stunning mountain views, or quaint country course Poolesville, located 15 miles up River Road from Congressional, but feels hours away.
The best muni in the Washington area can be found 35 minutes south, off I-95 in Lorton, Va. Laurel Hill Golf Club, designed by Bill Love and built on land formerly occupied by a correctional institution, will host the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links and has been ranked the No. 7 municipal course in the nation by Links Magazine and No. 13 by Golfweek.
If arriving in Washington via BWI airport, strong courses with easy access from I-95 are Waverly Woods (Marriottsville), and Cross Creek (Beltsville). More out of the way, but definitely worth the trip is muscular, privately-owned Blue Mash (Laytonsville), virtually unchallenged as the best public course in Montgomery County.
The top publics near Dulles airport in Virginia are Fred Couples-designed masterpiece Westfields (Clifton), Gary Player-designed Raspberry Falls (Leesburg), under-the-radar gem Goose Creek Golf Club (Leesburg), 1757 (Dulles) and planned-community throwback Reston National.
The lone course easily accessed from Reagan National airport is one you might fly over on your way in or out. East Potomac Park offers minimally-maintained grounds but maximum fun. The greens fees are among the cheapest in the area despite its prime location on a man-made island in the Potomac River. This course is all about the views -- the river, Fort McNair, the D.C. Waterfront, and the Washington Monument – and the uniquely-democratic D.C. experience.
For those with enough time to venture outside the Beltway, there are stellar public courses in all directions. To the east are Lake Presidential Golf Club, an upscale revelation in Upper Marlboro, and Renditions Golf Club, a magnificently-manicured tribute course with holes replicating the island green at TPC Sawgrass, the church pew bunkers at Oakmont, and Amen’s Corner at Augusta. To the southeast is stunning Swan Point in Issue, Md., which has a scenic mix of wetlands and hardwood, providing a coastal-Carolina feel.
To the rapidly growing south, and for those willing to test the fickle fortunes of crowded I-95, there are a trio of standouts -- Deane Beman-designed Cannon Ridge Golf Club in Fredericksburg, a Rick Jacobson classic at Augustine Golf Club in Stafford, and beautifully-sculpted Old Hickory in Woodbridge. To the west, off I-66 in Virginia are reinvigorated Bull Run Golf Club in Haymarket, which plays in the shadow of the Blue Ridge mountains, Pleasant Valley (Chantilly) and its equally-challenging sister course South Riding Golf Club, both with intricate, challenging green complexes, and Stonewall (Gainesville), the public counterpart on Lake Manassas to private stalwart Robert Trent Jones.
For mountain majesty in Maryland, head up I-270 to Frederick County for its wealth of scenic daily-fee courses. Musket Ridge is the prettiest and most strategic of them all, while Whiskey Creek has the most varied and rugged design. Maryland National is the most interesting and isolated of them all. Or for the area's most supreme test open to the public, take on P.B. Dye Golf Club.
Contributions from writers and editors on the Golf Channel Digital team.
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